Ronald Cotton

A decade behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit

In the winter of 1984, a jury convicted Ronald Cotton, a 22-year-old African American, of raping Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old white college student, the previous summer in Burlington, North Carolina. The conviction was overturned on appeal in 1987, but Cotton was retried and convicted not only of raping Thompson but also of raping a second young white woman, Elizabeth Watson—a crime with which he had not originally been charged.

In July 1984, at approximately 2:30 A.M., the rapist broke into Thompson's apartment through a rear door. Thompson had been asleep, but the noise awakened her. The man came into her bedroom, held a knife to her throat, and forced her to submit to sexual intercourse. Eventually Thompson managed to escape, fleeing to a neighbor's home and the police were called.

The assailant left Thompson's apartment and went to Watson's apartment. He approached the rear door, disconnected the porch light, pried open the door, located the phone, and severed its wires. Inside he grabbed Watson, held a knife to her throat, and forced her to submit to sexual intercourse.

Thompson remembered her assailant's face and she worked with police to create a composite sketch of the rapist. Watson did not remember a face but she said her assailant was African American, probably in his twenties, and he carried a flashlight along with the knife.

In Thompson's apartment, police found a small piece of foam rubber that they suspected came from the insole of an athletic shoe and that did not match any of Thompson's shoes. At Watson's apartment, police found a spot of blood on the rear door. Detectives put together a spread of mug shots of men who resembled the man depicted in the composite sketch. Police had Cotton's mug shot from a juvenile conviction years earlier. From the spread, Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the rapist. Watson looked at the same photos but identified no one.

Detectives went to arrest Cotton, but he was not home. In a search of the premises, they found a pair of athletic shoes that contained foam rubber later described as "consistent" with the piece found in Thompson's apartment.

When Cotton learned that the police were looking for him, he voluntarily turned himself in. He admitted the shoes were his but denied raping anyone. He said he had been with friends at the time of the crimes. A blood sample, which he voluntarily provided, did not match the blood from Watson's door.

When detectives checked Cotton's alibi, they found it to be false—his friends said he had been with them on a different night. Cotton said he had simply made a mistake, but the police did not believe that. He was arrested and put into a lineup, from which Thompson identified him. Watson viewed the same lineup and identified one of the fillers as the man who raped her. Cotton, thus, was charged with raping Thompson but not Watson.

At Cotton's jury trial in the Alamance County Superior Court, Thompson identified Cotton in open court as the man who raped her. Defense attorney Philip Moseley attempted to introduce evidence of a second rape—in which Watson had identified another man as the rapist and in which Cotton had been excluded as the source of blood found on the door through which her assailant entered. Judge Anthony H. Brannon, however, would not allow the jury to hear that evidence. The only physical evidence in the case was the small piece of rubber found in Thompson's apartment and the battered tennis shoes found in Cotton's apartment.

The jury found Cotton guilty, and Judge Brannon sentenced him to life in prison, but in 1987 the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for retrial on the ground that Brannon should have admitted the exculpatory evidence regarding the second rape.

While Cotton was awaiting retrial, Watson somehow concluded that Cotton was the man who raped her, even though in 1984 she had erroneously identified a lineup filler as her rapist. The prosecution then belatedly charged Cotton with raping Watson in addition to raping Thompson.

Before Cotton's trial for the two rapes, a prisoner came forward contending that an imprisoned serial rapist named Bobby Poole, an African American in his twenties, had boasted that he had committed the rapes with which Cotton was now charged. Poole's blood type matched the blood spot found in Watson's case, but Poole was called as a witness and denied both rapes. In a dramatic moment, Thompson told the jury, "Bobby Poole didn't rape me. Ronald Cotton did."

The jury found Cotton guilty of both rapes, and Judge Marsh McLelland sentenced him to two life terms plus 54 years. The conviction was affirmed by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 1990 and by the North Carolina Supreme Court the following year.

Richard Rosen, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, agreed to represent Cotton and filed a motion for DNA testing. Luckily, Burlington Police Detective Gauldin had preserved the biological material in the case, although there was no legal requirement for it to be maintained. Semen had been recovered from both victims. The sample from Thompson was too degraded to test, but testing of the sample recovered from Watson positively excluded Cotton as Watson's rapist and identified Poole as the perpetrator of that crime. Then, under questionind by Gauldin, Poole confessed to both rapes. In May 1995, the prosecution joined Rosen in a motion to drop all charges, and Judge McLelland granted the motion. Cotton received a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence the following month.

— Scot Abrahamson and Will Robinson